Love Cycles

5stagesThe title of this post is the title of another “how to” book on marriage I just read, this one by therapist  Linda Carroll.  She discusses the five stages of loving relationships around which she has built a 35 year practice in couples counseling.  (I’m beginning to think that everything on earth has five stages, but that’s just me.)  Before getting into the content of the book itself, I wanted to share the most powerful statement contained therein, a quote from poet Rainier Maria Rilke:  “For one human being to love another human being; that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been given to us, the ultimate, the final problem and proof, the work for which all other work is mere preparation.”  Wish I’d written that, or had the emotional depth to even have come close to writing it.  Beautiful thought.

So, the five stages of loving relationships, pretty straightforward stuff:  The Merge.  Doubt Busy-Parentsand Denial.  Disillusionment.  Decision.  And, finally, Wholehearted Loving.  Carroll takes multiple examples from couples with whom she has worked, and the anecdotal evidence allows the reader to recognize stages in which he/she currently resides or has passed through.  The liner notes claim the book offers “a clear strategy for how to stay happy and committed, even in difficult times,” with which I might argue.  Nancy and I have weathered some serious storms over the course of 40 years, and I’m not sure I would have been open to many of the suggestions the author makes for dealing with those stages beginning with the letter D, all of which were painful, difficult and exhausting.  I admit to not being overly open-minded about most things, and also admit that Nancy’s abilities to understand and coach me are what saved our relationship more than once.

The book is a pretty quick read, and perhaps you might want to check it out of your library.  I think the following list–Carroll’s Six C’s–does a nice job of hitting the high points of the book if you’re pressed for time or grooving in the “happily ever after” stage of your relationship:

  • Choice.  Pretty much everything we do as individuals or half of a committed couple involves making choices.  Even we feel helpless, we are making, and living with the consequences, of our own choices.  We are writing our own stories.
  • Commitment.  Part and parcel of sacramental marriage.  We must burn our own boats.  We must make this relationship the most important single fact of our lives and move beyond our fears and our periodic urge to flee, turning toward our partner in difficult times and, if necessary, seeking help to make our relationship work. Remembering how we felt in those first few weeks and months is a useful exercise, along with finding the way to a mature form of those electric sensations.  No, they don’t last forever.  Yes, they can remind us of what we felt early in the relationship, and motivate us to  move away from  thinking, as Carroll describes, “Why aren’t you ME?”
  • Celebration.  As Nancy has observed more than once, for every Jack there’s a Jill. Having found one another, you need to take time to celebrate the grace, the confluence of circumstances, that brought you together.  As humans, we are called to discover who we are as individuals and to fulfill our purpose on earth, making use of our gifts.  To share this journey, the experience of becoming ourselves, with another person on the same trip, calls for celebrations, even small ones, as often as possible.  We need to count our blessings and give thanks for each one, no matter how small or cleverly disguised.
  • Compassion.  In relationships, it is synonymous with forgiveness.  Scripture tells us we are to forgive even those who mean to harm us.  Doesn’t it follow, then, that we need to be fountains of forgiveness with our spouse or partner?  We’ve discussed in this space conditions and behaviors outside the realm of forgiveness–violence, abuse, etc.–but in the absence of pure malice, it is incumbent upon us to not only forgive our partners for their shortcomings, but to forgive ourselves for our own.
  • Cocreation.  A clever term for finding effective ways to manage conflict, share decisions, support one another, and avoid ending up in ruts.  This is about finding and exploring common interests, about not settling for night after night of television, about engaging one another and challenging each other to find new and different things to keep the relationship blooming.  Nancy convinced me several years ago that we should commit to a monthly activity we’ve never (or only rarely) done before, which explains the terrible investment I made several years ago in a pair of tickets to Shen Yun.  But there have been a bunch of fun, memorable outings in the meantime, with more to come.  A maple syrup tour.  The glass-blowing trail in northern Indiana. A country music concert (?) at Klipsch.  So get up, get out, and get with it!
  • Courage.  The courage to confront our own faults, the issues in our relationships and the conditions of our lives in an honest, loving spirit of awareness.  Lots of this stuff is hard, but we are capable of doing hard stuff.  So many people, caught up in the daily grind, go through the motions of living, whether as individuals or half of a couple.  If we are going to find true happiness, as people and as couples, we cannot settle for taking the easy way out of this life.  We should, instead, pin a copy of Rainier Maria Rilke’s quote above our desks and on our refrigerators, to help us remain mindful of the gift of our chosen vocation.

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Pillow Talk

In 2008, when we were first discussing the creation of a ministry at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel dedicated to fostering a community that supports married couples in our parish, I recall commenting to Denise McGonigal that this could not simply be about “the theory of marriage.”  That, in order to be successful, grow, and attract married couples from every demographic in the parish, it needed to focus on real-life issues, and to include concrete examples of how happily married couples make marriage work.  This stance would be leavened with a strong dose of Catholic spirituality, keeping in mind our mission to celebrate the joy of sacramental marriage, as eloquently expressed in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

So, here we are on Valentine’s Day, preparing for our monthly Marriage on Tap event tonight at which over 60 couples will be receiving eucharist, renewing their marriage vows, enjoying a date night meal together, and sharing thoughts and ideas around Denise’s presentation about marriages made in Heaven.  An intimate, non-commercial celebration of what marriage CAN be when spouses allow the Holy Spirit to enter their relationship and commit to each other to be the best husbands, wives and parents they can be.

As one of the more secular voices on this blog, I’m always searching mainstream media online for articles and ideas I can steal borrow to share with our readers.  Today I discovered a cheat sheet useful for facilitating conversation in the marital bed.  Why many of us are more comfortable conducting these conversations in our living rooms than in our bedrooms is a mystery.  My own theory, what Nancy would call “the story I’m telling myself,” is that these conversations will either lead to sex or NOT lead to sex, depending on which spouse is more inclined in which direction, comprising one of the worst sentences ever to grace these pages.  She, I suspect, would say it has nothing to do with any of that, that it’s probably due to more practical considerations; in our case, I wear a CPAP mask, which makes it practically impossible to talk, and works, for her, like talking with an astronaut.

Enough.  Here is the Pillow Talk piece borrowed from TheDatingDivas.com:

PIllow Talk

 

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Looking Back at Marriage from the Finish Line

old-couple in loveOur most recent post was an unsettling look at marriage from the perspective of people in their 20’s, the so-called Millennials.  It talked about “beta testing” relationships, about seven-year options with the right of renewal, etc.  Worth reading, if you have the time. Today’s post examines marriage from the perspective of couples who have been married up to 76 years.  The original article, written by Nancy Hellmich, appeared in USA Today.

Based upon research gathered from interviews with 700 retired people, gerontologist Karl Pillemer has written a new book, 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage. Pillemer, the founder of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging, has been married for 36 years to his own high school honey, Clare McMillan.  Treading dangerously close to plagiarism, I want to share the highlights of the advice I gleaned from his research, as follows:

  • Follow your heart when choosing a spouse.  This was beautifully described as “the thunderbolt” in The Godfather, whose Michael Corleone experienced it while courting his future wife, Apollonia Vitelli, but I digress.  The point is, one shouldn’t get married simply because it seems like the right time.  He or she must make one’s heart “soar like a hawk.”  And although young love is no guarantee, perhaps we should describe it as necessary, but not sufficient. Wedding
  • Use your head, too.  If he or she has a gambling issue or drinks too much, is financially irresponsible or flirts incessantly, it raises the odds against a successful long term union.  Our future mate need not be perfect, but there are some definite dealbreakers out there that all of your love and care won’t overcome.
  • Seek shared values.  Sure, opposites attract, and spouses with different temperaments can enjoy very successful long term relationships.  My wife Nancy and I are different in many ways, but we share core beliefs in raising children, handling money, deferring immediate gratification to achieve long-term goals, etc.  In college, I thought of this a seeking a woman with a “coefficient of boredom” similar to mine, one who could enjoy life at a pace midway between frenetic and lethargic.
  • Find someone with whom you can communicate easily.  It is unrealistic to suppose that Chatty Kathy is going to be able to sustain a relationship with Strong Silent Ken. I’m big and loud and still recall how happy I was to have met a woman in Nancy whom I could not intimidate.  Back when I was in the insurance business I had a client with a basic high school education who operated a food truck and was married to a pediatrician.  I don’t know what became of them, but I remember thinking at the time that they didn’t seem to have much in common.  If you and your intended have trouble talking about important stuff now, it probably won’t get any easier as you age.Parents and kids
  • Choose the time and place to discuss difficult subjects.  My mom used to say that timing is everything, which may or may not be true, but tackling difficult subjects must be done with some forethought.  I may not welcome a conversation about disciplining the kids when I’m in the middle of painting a room.  She may not want to discuss my budget concerns while preparing dinner for eight.  You get the idea. There’s a time and a place for everything.  And while you can’t, and shouldn’t, avoid the hard talks, you can certainly approach them with some discernment.  “Listen, after the kids are in bed tonight, can we talk about that argument we had at breakfast?”
  • Put your relationship first.  Ahead of your family, your kids and your friends.  Ahead of your work, your hobbies, even your favorite NFL team.  If your spouse feels you care more about golf than you do about her–even assuming she’s wrong–there’s gonna be trouble in River City.  Just sayin’.  And, like it or not, your kids should have to fit in your lives; you should not have to build your lives around them.  Just because you would give your lives for them doesn’t mean you should, unless push comes to shove, which it rarely does.
  • Develop some ground rules around in-laws.  They can enrich your lives, they can become a burden, or some of each.  The important thing is to find common ground concerning when, where and how much time you spend with them.  My mom told me to check out a girl’s mom, because that was who she would someday become.  I could argue that perhaps Nancy should have taken a closer look at my father, since he’s who I have become.  And though these prescriptions are offered somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there is something to them.
  • Pillemer says that “marriage is made of thousands of micro-interactions” which John Gottman refers to as “bids” in his own research.  It is hard to give one’s wife too many compliments, indicating not that you are a fawning dolt, but rather that you notice and appreciate the small things she does for you.  If your love language is acts of service (as mine is), it’s nice when they are noticed and received graciously.
  • Cute-Romantic-Love-CoupleMaintain your physical relationship as you age.  Not doing so puts you at risk of developing a spiritual distance between yourselves.  As Toby Keith says, “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.”  Even if you’re beyond Toby’s stage, it is important to maintain physical intimacy in your marriage.  Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” proclaims that marital intimacy is a gift from God, and we should treat it as such.
  • Finally, it is important to be friends first.  This doesn’t come from Pillemer, but from me, John Gottman, Art and Larriane Bennett and countless students of the game. Can you imagine an argument with your best friend that would cause the two of you to stop being friends?  Me neither.  So it stands to reason that if your spouse is your best friend, you can weather any number of storms in your relationship, knowing that you’ll make up and find a way to laugh off whatever it was.  If you’re just lovers, you might choose to walk away from each other when things get rough, as they will. Being friends first gives you a powerful motivation to solve problems, soothe feelings, and put things right.

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We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us

Happy New Year, couples.  Yes, we’ve been in hiatus for months, dealing with a number of issues ranging from travel and health concerns to a relative lack of inspiration from many of our usual contributors.  Now that 2015 is upon us, I am hoping for some renewed energy and relying on The Holy Spirit to provide it to all of us, with a tip of the hat to Walt Kelly

UnhappyA recurring theme in this blog is that successful marriages are not about finding the right person as much as being the right person.  When things go wrong in our lives, it is not unusual to blame others–employers, spouses, friends, bad ju-ju, etc.  Yet, in most cases, we have only ourselves to blame, which is inconvenient in that it forces us to change our behaviors and/or our attitudes toward the things that comprise our lives.

I direct your attention to a recent article published in Huffington Post (yes, them again) about a failed marriage, written by the now ex-wife.  In a nutshell, her ex lied to her, cheated on her, and finally abandoned the family.  Some time later, in therapy, she realized that her own foibles were at the root of much of what went wrong in the relationship.  I encourage you to read the article, but let me summarize what she refers to as the “four huge mistakes I made” that led to the breakdown of the marriage:

  1. I put my children first.  While it is a holy obligation to care for one’s kids, it is easy to allow them to become a place to escape to when difficulties arise in your relationship with your spouse.  This particular issue typically afflicts wives more than husbands, but men are not exempt, either.  This evokes the instructions we get while waiting for a plane to take off, that we are supposed to affix our own oxygen masks before taking care of the kids.
  2. I didn’t set (or enforce) boundaries with my parents.  While many of us are blessed with parents who live nearby and love interacting with and helping out with our kids, for some spouses this can become burdensome.  Our spouses married us; they didn’t marry our entire families.  For some spouses, when this occurs, it is a hard conversation to have, telling your spouse that you want/need some space from your inlaws.  That conversation, however, pales in difficulty to the one in which you tell him or her you’re moving out.
  3. I emasculated him.  The author’s reflections on this subject are straight out of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse–criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.  Talking smack about our spouses with our friends simply adds fuel to the fire, stoking our own rage and setting the stage for gossip which can work its way back to the spouse.  “I hear your wife said you’re lousy in the sack” is not something I want to hear while waiting on the first tee with my golfing buddies.  Reading Gottman’s book allows us to both recognize these deadly sins and offers concrete advice on how to work through them.
  4. I didn’t bother to learn to fight the right way.  The notion of “fighting fairly” is one that intrigues me and is, again, a subject to which John Gottman devotes a lot of attention.  All couples are going to disagree at times, and a number of these disagreements can escalate into fights.  Learning how to fight fairly–my wife Nancy is better at this than I am–provides opportunities to turn these arguments into understanding.  Keep in mind that, when it comes to arguing, your objective should not be to win; your objective should be to recognize the root causes of the fight and change behaviors in order to avoid them in the future.  We need to seek understanding rather than victory.  In the long run, winning is less desirable than creating win-win situations.

The title of this post is one of Pogo’s lasting contributions to western society.  When holding_handsdifficulties arise in our marriages, we are encouraged to reflect on how we have contributed to the problem, rather than taking the easy, shortsighted way out and simply blaming everything on our spouses.  It takes two to tango; the reason cliches are cliches is because they are generally true.  Let us pray the Serenity Prayer and look inside ourselves before berating our spouses for their shortcomings.  More often than not, the enemy is us.

Like Fine Wine…

Fine-wine

…marriage often improves over time.  Through the marriage enrichment ministry at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, we meet lots of couples, some who have been married for five months, others for five decades.  The couples whose relationships have survived and thrived over 30 and 40 years often find themselves living in a sweet spot in their conjoined lives. This would include Nancy and me as we head into our 39th year together.

Here’s a nice little article from Huff Post entitled 7 Signs Your Long-Term Marriage Is Even Stronger Now Than It Was On Your Honeymoon.”  Sit down with your spouse, grab a couple of beverages and go through the list, see how many are true for you.  And don’t miss the slide show at the bottom in which readers share their secrets to long, happy marriages.  The old adage that “keeping score raises the score” may be true for selling life insurance, but it is definitely NOT true when it comes to marriage.

If you’ve only been married for a few years, or even a few months, relax.  Read some John Gottman.  Buy the book “Crucial Conversations.”  Take on Art and Laraine Bennett.  Contrary to popular belief, there are a few good instruction manuals out there for being happily married.  As we’ve said here before, successful marriage is not about finding the right person.  It’s about being the right person.

Happy Easter, everyone.

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Pleasing God, if Only for a Moment

TOn Saturday, February 8, roughly 60 couples renewed their wedding vows at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.  The event, organized by the Love’s Sacred Embrace ministry, was lightly publicized, yet the response was robust, and included a number of couples that had not previously attended Marriage on Tap or any of the annual retreats.  Those renewing their vows spanned a wide range, from friends married for five months to others married more than five decades.  Father Doerr and Father Arbuckle sounded a bit hoarse when the blessings were finally concluded.  God’s grace was present in great abundance last night.

After dinner, Denise McGonigal and I were chatting about the evening.  She and Joe are young-weddingfacilitating a day-long marriage prep day today at church, prompting us to marvel at the general lack of awareness with which most young couples approach the sacrament of marriage.  Although the demographics of couples getting married for the first time are changing (trending to older and more affluent, while the overall numbers shrink), it’s still true that the vast majority of couples entering into the sacrament have absolutely no idea what they are in for, no idea of the scope and depth of the promises they are making. Generally, they are far more aware of the atmospherics–planning, invitations, seating charts, cakes, rehearsals–than they are of the promises they are exchanging, ostensibly until one of them dies.  Even if they are exceptionally aware and alert, there is no practical way to describe how the entry of children into the equation changes things.  Add to all of this the weight of a popular culture that is generally scornful and corrosive toward the institution of marriage, and it’s no wonder so many marriages fail within the first ten years. In fact, it may be a wonder that so many survive.

The only possible explanation behind the marriages that actually make it until the death of a spouse is God’s grace.  Yet, as Catholics, we are taught that grace cannot be earned, that our only hope of receiving something approaching “our share” is to be open to His Spirit.  Active practice of our faith–attending Mass, prayer, studying scripture, serving the poor and those less fortunate than ourselves–may put us in a favorable position with God, but guarantee nothing insofar as gaining grace is concerned.  Is it, then, simply the luck of the draw?

Perhaps.  But there are things we can do to improve our chances.  As Anne and Pete Slamkowski shared with us last night, we can love our spouses intentionally.  We can read and learn from folks like John Gottman and Art and Laraine Bennettwho have written about the secrets of highly successful marriages.  We can commit to BEING the right person, rather than SEARCHING for the right person, when it comes to marriage.  We can focus on fixing our own flaws, rather than harping on the flaws of our mate.  We can approach the challenges of keeping a home and raising children in a spirit of equality, of shared duties, rather than the common practice (engaged in by many men) of relegating these functions to the wife, an anachronistic vestige of the “women’s work” mentality of the 19th century.  Finally, we can enlist God’s help, through prayers of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication, to see us through the difficult times, and help us appreciate the good.

WeddingLast night, 60 couples said, in effect, “I chose well when I married you the first time, and I am blessed and happy to be able to marry you again.”  In an age of rampant materialism, obscene popular culture, shameful income inequality, global strife and a planet seemingly dedicated to contravening God’s word, in a small, quiet snowy community in central Indiana, a few of us gave God reason to celebrate His creation.  It was an honor to be a part of it.

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